Born in 1728, James Cook was the son of a Yorkshire day-laborer. His quickness and intelligence were evident in childhood, and one of his father’s employers arranged for him to go to school (his disappointed father had hoped that he would become a shopkeeper). He had a passion for the sea and was apprenticed on a coal ship in the North Sea, which was considered hard training for any man. He later volunteered in the Seven Years’ War, and within a month’s time, was promoted to master’s mate. Cook took part in the survey of the St. Lawrence River and parts of the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia coasts, which earned him distinction as a skilled marine surveyor, and in 1766, when he witnessed an eclipse of the sun, his observations were sent to London, where he became known at the Royal Society and the Admiralty as an astute observer, and even-tempered commander of men. His first voyage to the Pacific in 1768 was to observe the Transit of Venus from the vantage point of Tahiti, and to verify the existence of the continent of Australia.
Cook’s confidential charge from the Admiralty in 1768 had been to observe “with accuracy the Situation of such Islands as you may discover in the Course of your Voyage that have not hitherto been discover’d by any Europeans and take possession for His Majesty and make Surveys and Draughts of such of them as may appear to be of Consequence…You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives…the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the coast and in what Plenty.”
The Admiralty particularly wished Cook to find a passage from the northwest coast of America east to the Atlantic Ocean. Sailing to Polynesia for the third time in 1776, Cook stopped at Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and New Zealand, storing supplies of wild celery and scurvy grass, before continuing to Tonga and the Society Islands, where he was cured of a bad attack of rheumatism (he was in his early forties) by being punched and squeezed from head to foot by native healers. Before leaving Tahiti in September 1777, bound for North America, Cook inquired if the natives knew of any land or islands to the north or northwest, and they said that they knew of none.
Four months later, on the 18th of January, 1778, Cook sighted an island in the North Pacific, O‘ahu, and shortly after, the island of Kaua‘i. At sunrise the next day, O‘ahu was several leagues to the east, and Cook bore north, discovering yet a third island, Ni‘ihau (he gave to his discovery the name Sandwich Islands, after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty). Cook saw several villages on the larger island of Kaua‘i, both along the beach and on the hillsides, but the wind prevented the ships from approaching the island that Cook would later call “Atooi.” The ships stood off and on during the night, tacking along the southeastern coast of the island, nearing land the following day, when canoes of curious natives came to the ships. Cook wrote in his journal:
It required but very little address to get them to come along side, but we could not prevail upon any one to come on board; they exchanged a few fish they had in the Canoes for any thing we offered them, but valued nails, or iron above every other thing; the only weapons they had were a few stones in some of the Canoes and these they threw overboard when they found they were not wanted. Seeing no signs of an anchoring place at this part of the island, I boar (sic) up for the lee side, and ranged the SE side at the distance of half a league from the shore. As soon as we made sail the Canoes left us, but others came off from the shore and brought with them roasting pigs and some very fine Potatoes…several small pigs were got for a sixpeny (sic) nail or two apiece, so that we again found our selves in the land of plenty…
Cook was still unable to anchor the following day, when natives again left the beach in canoes and paddled to the ships, which they boarded with less fear than they had shown the previous day. “One asked another,” wrote the historian David Malo, ʻWhat are those branching things?ʻ and the other answered, ‘They are trees moving about on the sea,ʻ…The excitement became more intense, and louder grew the shouting.”
At the first sight of the mysterious ships, some of the chiefs had been eager to kill the strangers before running the ships ashore for plunder. Other chiefs, recalling the legend of Lono, the harvest god who had promised to return one day to the Islands, wished to humor them, and gave them gifts of pigs and bananas. The chiefs met in counsel, where after some dissension it was decided to send yet more gifts. John Rickman, second lieutenant on the Discovery, wrote in Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1781) that, “This diffused a joy among the mariners that is not easy to be expressed. Fresh provisions and kind females are the sailors sole delight; and when in possession of them, past hardships are instantly forgotten; even those whom the scurvy had attacked, and had rendered pale and lifeless as ghosts, brightened upon this occasion, and for the moment appeared alert.”
Among the women taken to the ships was Lelemahoalani, the daughter of the high chiefess of Kaua’i, who, it is claimed by David Malo, spent the night with Cook, who was more and more thought to be the avatar of the benign god Lono: “And Lono slept with that woman, and the Kauai women prostituted themselves to the foreigners for iron.” If it is true, Cook, who was said to be abstemious regarding alcohol and women, consorted that first night in Waimea with a pagan princess (Judge Fornander wrote in 1870 that the last generation of Hawaiians whom he interviewed openly claimed that Lelemahoalani slept that night with Lono — that is, with James Cook).
Cook was at first, and perhaps always, unaware that the Hawaiians saw him as the god Lono. David Samwell, surgeon on board the Discovery, quickly perceived the difficulties inherent in deciphering and understanding the language of the Hawaiians, both symbolic and literal, as well as the behavior of a people so profoundly unknown to them, despite Cookʻs somewhat vainglorious belief that he understood the Indians, as he called them, very well. Samwell wrote that, “There is not much dependence to be placed upon these Constructions that we put upon Signs and Words which we understand but very little of, & at best can only give a probably Guess at their Meaning.”
Certain similarities (not unlike the coincidences and seeming fulfillments of prophecies that marked the arrival of Herman Cortes in Mexico in 1519) caused the Hawaiians to believe that Cook was the godʻs incarnation — Cook appeared at the time of Lonoʻs Makahiki festival and the godʻs traditional symbol, a white length of kapa wrapped around a wooden crossbar, was very like the sails of Cookʻs ships. Some historians speculate that a mysterious voyager in the distant past had arrived in the Islands at the same time of year, carrying with him tributary offerings and new gods. The stranger introduced games, athletic competitions, and a system of annual taxation in which much wealth was acquired by the god during his counterclockwise circuit of the island before he departed for Kahiki, the inclusive name of all distant places from Easter Island to Malaysia, with the promise to return someday.